October 28, 2021
The Sixers are a brutal collapse away from being 4-1 with a win over the preseason title favorites, but that collapse has loomed large in the psyche of fans, with the team mostly sputtering out of the gate without Ben Simmons. As Joel Embiid fights through knee pain and tries to steer the Sixers through this new reality, it felt appropriate to hit you with a mailbag filled with questions about the opening week of the season.
Five games in, unrest is approaching critical mass, so here's hoping I can calm a few of you down by answering your questions.
Why is Embiid playing thru a knee injury in the first week of the season? Did you hear any concerns on the team side about him avoiding meniscus surgery in the offseason?— Jacob (@Jmurrayabraham) October 27, 2021
The team line is going to continue to be the same thing until they can no longer say otherwise — it's an issue Embiid can and is managing, though how well he's managing it is certainly up for debate. The surgery angle has barely been given a second thought internally, at least in any conversations I've had over the last few months, and a lot of the people (not referring to you, Jacob!) yelling about it don't seem to understand what the meniscus does or when/when not to have it worked on. If at any point I have something more to report, you guys will obviously know, but throwing every single thing you hear or think into print isn't how this job works, especially with murky health stuff.
As for the why component of all this, it's a totally fair question. There's absolutely no reason Embiid should be playing in, for example, games like the Sunday evening matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, or the win over Detroit on Thursday. Needing to have Embiid on the floor to beat a team that isn't interested in winning games this season (at least at the organizational level) is a sad state of affairs.
There is a combination of factors at work here. Embiid has told you himself that he feels a certain level of responsibility to be on the floor, something he feels constantly but even more so with Ben Simmons unavailable for *gestures at that situation wildly*. Embiid denied it during his postgame presser following the Detroit win, but I do think he's also cognizant of the fact that he will constantly be dinged in individual awards races if he can't stay on the floor for a full season, which gives him some extra fuel to maybe push through the pain when he shouldn't. He is a prideful guy who loves to compete, and I'm not sure anyone in the organization has the power to stand up to him and tell him he needs to sit (which would be true for almost every organization in the league). They'll probably win out with voices of reason on occasion, but ultimately the players are going to decide when they do and don't play in this league. If you want to take issue with someone, take it up with the big man, because he's the guy who ultimately decides whether pain is enough to keep him out of a game.
They have to be smarter than they have been managing him, and that starts with Embiid himself. Here's my stance on the situation — I think he would be totally justified saying he needs a game, two games, however many games he needs off if that's what it takes to get right and be the Joel Embiid we all saw push for an MVP last season. But if he's willingly going out there and playing through issues, he's responsible for the results of that decision, good or bad. I have respect for his willingness to battle through knocks, it just does not mean we excuse him if he performs poorly, as he did in New York on Tuesday night. Heavy is the hand that signs the supermax contract.
Is the poor net rating of the starting lineup something to be concerned about, and would moving around some pieces with the backup unit (whose net rating has been excellent) be at least a temporary solution until either Simmons comes back or is traded?— Joel4MVP (@Joel4MVP) October 27, 2021
For all of Simmons' playoff warts, he has been an ultra-productive player for them in the regular season and his contributions are varied to a point that makes them tough to replace. You could shore up the defense by putting someone like Matisse Thybulle on the floor, but you're suffering in a big way on the offensive end. Maxey gives you some off-the-dribble juice, but he's a gunshy shooter and a potential target on the defensive end. Shake Milton seems likely to step into the starting lineup soon, which should aid the Sixers in their quest to build an offensive identity around Embiid. But even though I think that's the "best" option from a list of subpar paths, it won't do anything to shore up the defense, which is the bigger problem at the moment.
As I wrote following the Knicks game, Embiid is also going to have to do some things he doesn't love to do in order to make life easier for his teammates. Committing to being a more active screener in the pick-and-roll would make a difference for this group, though it's fair to point out that they might have one guy on the roster who is even semi-impactful as a pick-and-roll player. There are things Rivers can do on the coaching side, mostly in a variety of action and offense, that might be able to at least keep defenses off balance and steer the Sixers out of rocky stretches. That said, it would require practice work and prep time to start to introduce more concepts, and you don't get a lot of that once the season begins.
Some of this is going to sort itself out as the season goes on — I would bet they'll improve on defense with some better opponent shooting luck. But I don't think anyone should expect the top group to be a net rating champion this year, and they'll probably be more reliant on bench production than ever until/unless they figure the Simmons situation out.
does simmons get boo’ed his first game back? (assuming he actually does come back)— Ryan Smith (@StormySmith576) October 27, 2021
Let's say, for example, you're a parent who just so happens to be taking your young child to a game for the first time the night Simmons returns. Are you really going to sit/stand there and lay into the dude, or are you going to hope he helps create a memory that will spark a bond for you and your kid? If someone is on a date, are you going to be the maniac cursing a stranger out or explaining to your less-invested partner why a lot of people are booing? The answers will vary person to person, but not everybody showing up to a game arrives with blood lust.
And that's before the mental health angle was thrown into all of this. There are skeptics on the sincerity there, given the order of operations in this circus, but ultimately I think people (rightfully) skew on the side of caution with this stuff. Fans ultimately want to support people who can admit when they need help, in whatever form that help comes in, and if Simmons returns from his hiatus ready to turn over a new leaf, I would honestly be shocked if people around here don't give him a chance. He has to actually prove willing to do that, of course.
is OKC getting a pass on tanking ?— mark lyons (@marcoforehand) October 27, 2021
Is the major difference Presti has a good relationship w the agents ? (who seem to be a major "source" for co called nba insiders)
Mind you, it's not like Presti himself was against what the Sixers were doing, or at least their right to do it. He was a pretty constant ally of Hinkie's when anti-tanking measures were up for discussion/voting at the league level, perhaps with the knowledge that he might have to go on this path himself someday.
Is there any way that Darryl sees a 2 for 1 (or 3 for 1) trade for Ben as a way to improve the championship odds? Or do we think it’s a borderline all star or nothing— logan roberts (@MrRoberts_23) October 27, 2021
It's not easy to figure out where the cutoff is. The moonshot deals, a la Damian Lillard, don't seem realistic right now. Is there an All-Star level player who could become available slightly below Lillard's caliber that would make them meaningfully better? Scanning through the 2021 All-Star list, there are probably at least 10 guys whose teams would hang up the phone if the Sixers offered to swap Simmons for them (the Giannis, Durant, LeBron types of the world). There are a number of guys who don't fit what Philly needs whatsoever (e.g. Sabonis, Vucevic, Gobert), players who seem unlikely to get swapped for Simmons at this point despite previous rumors (Beal, LaVine), and so on down the line.
Once you get past the actual, certified All-Stars, you run into players the Sixers have already indicated in some way that they're not after. CJ McCollum, for example, is a better player than I think he's given credit for and a terrific offensive fit in Philly. But that hasn't mattered to the Sixers, who are after his better backcourt partner. They never registered much interest in Malcolm Brogdon prior to Indiana locking him up with an extension, either. They want a star, or they want Simmons back. Realistic or not, that's where they stand.
(To the first part of the question — I think they could be convinced to do a multiple parts deal if it gave them some future upside. If someone like Tyrese Haliburton headlined a deal that also brought back multiple helpful role players, the upside and potential cap savings there might be enough to get it over the line if no readymade star deal emerges. But I don't think that's their preference, certainly.)
Are the Sixers a play-in team as currently constructed without Ben Simmons?— Shah (@SportMediaPause) October 27, 2021
At what point is Doc on the hot seat?— Gio (@Any2Cards302) October 27, 2021
That doesn't mean Rivers is on or even close to the hot seat, but it's something to keep in mind. There's been no word of any friction between Rivers and Morey (or other staffers for that matter) even though the order of hirings was backward from the norm, and ultimately the question is always whether firing a coach is going to lead to a better coach being put in place. I don't think Rivers is as bad as his worst critics suggest, but I also didn't view him as the magic bullet solution when he was hired in the first place.
Have you played Metroid Dread yet?— Gregula (@Gregular_Greg) October 27, 2021
But I need a new Metroid Prime game in the worst way. Ditto for Hollow Knight 2. Everything else before those games drop is just a substitute.
Does it feel like Embiid is obsessed with being this point Center? He's being ro passive instead of dominating and getting teams in foul trouble etc. He needs to be that guy than it opens it up for the other players. He needs to realize the team needs you to score!— KRDSIXERS123 (@krdsixers123) October 27, 2021
I don't think Embiid is obsessed with it, but he definitely has to find a way to play unselfishly without losing what makes him special on the offensive end. He has made huge strides in terms of the passes he can make and how often he makes them, but if there's a remaining complaint about his playmaking, it's that it can be a little too deliberate. You don't see a lot of snap reads and on-the-fly adjustments from the big guy, who tends to commit to scoring or playmaking wholeheartedly on a given play.
Frankly, I think a commitment to playmaking is something that has been long overdue for Embiid. If the Sixers are going to try to contend with Embiid as the best player, he needs to be able to use the pressure he generates to create open looks for teammates, or else the ability to draw double teams is not actually beneficial for the Sixers. Good offense, especially good playoff offense, is about finding the paths of least resistance and exploiting them repeatedly. For a lot of teams, that means hunting small and/or incapable defenders with your best ballhandlers. For the Sixers, that's likely going to mean Embiid either beating one-on-one matchups or sucking attention toward him in the paint and then finding whoever becomes open as a result. To be a title-winning leader, he has to be the 30-point scorer and the point center, unless they make a roster change that takes some of that pressure off of his shoulders. Balance is key.
Should tyrese stay in the lineup when shake comes back?— Nick Wiley (@nwiley529) October 27, 2021
Putting Maxey with a group where he'll have more shot-creating opportunities better suits his skill set, compared to what he does with the starters, which is a lot of spacing the floor for Joel Embiid. Right now, teams are mostly ignoring him on the perimeter, and as all of you reading this know, that's something the Sixers want to avoid when the big guy is posting up.
However, Thursday's game against Detroit showed you what it might look like if Maxey shows a level of assertiveness befitting a starting point guard. It's not easy for a second-year guard to wave off guys like Embiid and Tobias Harris to call his own number, and finding the mental wherewithal to do so is as important to his development as his outside touch. The only way for him to find his voice and place amongst the starters is to let him play with them, so more reps and growing pains might be the prudent long-term move. All that really matters to me is that Maxey gets enough minutes, because he's a critical part of the path forward until/unless they rectify the Simmons situation.
Matisse has not shown all that much improvement offensively. If he has plateaued as an offensive player (will be 25 this season), is it easier to trade him with Simmons for one of the potential “difference makers” that Morey conveys?— Corey Gorman (@Corey_Gorman) October 27, 2021
That being said, if including Thybulle is the difference between getting a true impact player and not in a Simmons trade, you send him on the first flight out of Philadelphia. He's a role player, admittedly a very talented and (at least at times) impactful role player, but you can find more of those. Getting stars is the hard part, and Morey will do whatever is necessary to try to get the right ones around Embiid in an attempt to win a title.
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